Surviving and Thriving Through the Holidays: Tips for Families to Move More and Eat for Health

by Kathy Gunter Ph.D and Emily Tomayko Ph.D.

The holidays are a time for families to create new traditions and share long-treasured observances. It is also a great time to share activities that promote holiday (and everyday) health behaviors that will enable everyone to enjoy those family traditions in good health for years to come.

A great deal of media attention and research has focused on the rise in childhood obesity and the negative health effects associated with excess weight. It is now quite clear that the risks for many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep problems, asthma, and depression, are increased for children who are overweight or obese compared to healthy-weight children. There is also mounting evidence that overweight children struggle academically and socially in comparison to healthy-weight peers. Today 1 out of 3 children and teens in the U.S. are overweight or obese. For most growing children, weight loss is not the recommended approach. Instead, physicians and researchers recommend curbing children’s weight gain through healthy eating, increasing active play, and reducing sedentary time—all things that parents can do with their children to ensure they grow into a healthy weight and develop behaviors that support health. For children who are already at a healthy weight, encouraging these behaviors early will promote lifelong health.

We are both obesity prevention researchers and parents (of a “tween” for Kathy and a toddler for Emily), so we think about these issues daily. What strategies can parents adopt at home to reduce these risks for their children? And, more importantly, how do parents address healthy behaviors in the midst of a holiday season where the work, school, community, and media environments encourage sitting, eating and drinking, rather than playing actively and enjoying enough (but not too much) of our traditional family recipes? Research shows that there are many aspects of the family home environment that influence our children’s risk for obesity. The good news is that the influence can have beneficial rather than harmful effects. In this month’s blog, we share simple strategies that can produce big rewards this holiday season and beyond. What a great gift for your family – the gift of health.

When the weather gets a little cooler, it’s hard not to think of our favorite holiday foods: pies, holiday cookies, Nana’s green bean casserole, or the peppermint mochas (Kathy’s personal challenge!). And it is okay to indulge a little, but over-indulging and sitting more (like interacting with new electronic gadgets or watching favorite holiday movie classics) promote unhealthy behaviors. Here are a few tips to promote healthy eating and activity for families over the holidays:

  • Be creative with family favorites. Parents don’t need to ditch the cream-laden casseroles or sweet sugar cookies their families have come to expect over the years. Instead, think of ways to improve recipes with easy substitutions. Non-fat Greek yogurt can be used in place of sour cream or mayonnaise, and many cakes and cookies will turn out extra moist by subbing unsweetened applesauce for for canola or vegetable oil. Try using whole grain flours or brown rice in recipes or loading casseroles with extra vegetables in place of meat. Rolled oats or crushed bran can serve as breadcrumbs, and chia seeds can be used to thicken a pot of soup without adding heavy cream. The possibilities are endless, and often times the substitutions go unnoticed!
  • Create a new kind of holiday tradition. There are tons of holiday-themed walking and running events in most areas. Sign up the whole family and don’t forget the costumes or “ugly holiday sweaters.” Focus on having fun together and making memories. Don’t dwell on how quickly or slowly you walk, jog, wheel, or waddle to the finish. When children feel supported by friends and family to be active, or are surrounded by others showing interest in physical activity, they are more likely to participate.
  • Eat a healthy meal before going to a party. Fill up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein at home before walking into a room filled with holiday treats. This will allow parents to avoid a focus on restriction: they can discuss with their children what treats they may want to try, and overindulgence will be much less likely by everyone going to parties a full stomach.
  • Take advantage of seasonal activity opportunities. Snow doesn’t fall in all parts of Oregon, but it can make for fun physical activities if you find yourself snowbound. Make silly snow angels, build snow people, animals, or mine craft creatures. Not a creative type? Go for a walk! The resistance of untouched snow offers a great workout and an opportunity to seek out and identify animal tracks. No snow? Ball up soft socks and have an indoor snowball fight. All that ducking and throwing can burn loads of calories.
  • Offer to bring a healthy dish to holiday gatherings. Another opportunity for parties is to offer to bring something. The internet can be a treasure trove of fun ideas to make healthy foods—have you seen the vegetable Christmas trees or hard boiled egg snowmen? Busy parents might not have the time to prepare these dishes on a daily basis (say, for in school lunches), but holiday gatherings offer a good opportunity to try creative recipes for healthy foods. If you offer to bring one of these fun recipes to a party, you can be sure at least something there will be healthy to eat!
  • Be the first one out on the dance floor. When you have children, it gives you license to abandon your inhibitions. Model confidence in movement and be the first to cut a rug whether the holiday party is at a friend or family member’s house, or in your kitchen. And make sure your child is your dance partner of choice. Parental encouragement to be active is one of the strongest predictors of children’s physical activity. You don’t need to be a star athlete to have a profound effect on your child’s health. You just need to be your child’s best cheerleader.
  • Involve your children in healthy food preparation to encourage their skills around cooking and eating. This approach serves a dual purpose of skill development and quality time for parents to spend with their children. For older kids, preparing a meal together could offer an opportunity to engage in difficult or challenging conversation while you work side-by-side, as they may feel more comfortable opening up without being under your direct gaze.

One of the best, and probably most challenging, things a parent can do for their child’s health is to model these healthy behaviors—both during the holidays and throughout the year. Parents want the best for their children’s health, but shouldn’t shortchange their own health in the process. Cheers to health and happiness for all families this holiday season!

For some more information check out the following resources:

Food Hero: 

Let’s Move:

Kathy Gunter is an Associate Professor in Kinesiology and Family and Community Health in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

Emily Tomayko is an Assistant Professor in Nutrition in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

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